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Monday, June 2, 2003

Stress comes calling in call centre industry
Geeta Seshu

iLLUSTRATION BY SANDEEP JOSHILONG hours of work, permanent night shifts, incredibly high work targets, loss of identity...are these the dark clouds that threaten to mar the ‘sunshine’ call centre industry in India?Many of these young persons - between 18 and 21 years - are seeking counselling. "In the past four months we have been counselling at least two persons every week who work in call centres," says Dr Jitendra Nagpal, a psychiatrist at the Delhi-based Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (VIMHANS).

They come seeking help for work-related stress, irregular sleeping hours, unhealthy food habits and chronic fatigue. Although most such cases do not require treatment or medication, says Nagpal, they need guidance on physical and mental coordination to cope with a job that requires hyper-alert efficiency.

Today, most top executives acknowledge that a steady attrition rate is an inevitable aspect of the industry. The reasons for this could be boredom with the job, seeking better prospects or a change, or even the failure of the call centre to effectively train employees to stay at the job.

However, what is privately admitted but rarely acknowledged publicly is the toll taken by the inherent nature of the job. Kokila Nath was a bubbly graduate before she joined a prominent call centre in Mumbai. Six months later, her eyes were puffy, her once-blooming skin was red and blotchy and her cheerful temperament lost to a short-tempered and edgy young woman. "We couldn’t recognise our daughter. In fact, we couldn’t even talk to her most of the time. She slept throughout the day, barely ate and sped off to work where she had to meet targets failing which the entire team would suffer."

Why then, did Nath leave after a year? The call centre did provide one-way transport between 10 pm and 6 am. If her eight-hour shift began at 2 am, she was brought to work but at the end of a hard night, she had to make her way back home at 10 am. Her holidays coincided with those in the USA, leaving her completely out of sync with her family and friends. But the worst part was the weight loss, the deterioration of her eyesight, skin problems, and creeping insomnia. She opted out to seek a more relaxed job with regular working hours.

Leela Swamy left for other reasons. Employed in a centre that did, among other things, telemarketing for a foreign bank, she found that the employees were at the mercy of their team manager for everything - from salaries to incentives and casual leave sanctions.

Her plight illustrates the manner in which basic labour regulations can so easily be given the go-by. Directed to make at least 250 calls per shift, the entire team was under high pressure to meet targets. The tension on the job got to her and Swamy fell ill. Although told she would be entitled to sick leave and casual leave when she was employed, she was greeted with a pay-cut on resuming duty.

Obscene phone calls and invitations are considered occupational hazards that few women are willing to talk about. Some, scared by such encounters, end up quitting their jobs. In fact, a young woman in a telemarketing agency developed an elaborate disguise. She called herself by a fictitious name and once she secured a client, she pretended to quit the company so the client wouldn’t pursue her. Then she would adopt another name, approach another client and the process would begin all over again.

"I do anticipate three clear issues emerging from the nature of call centre work," says clinical psychologist Dr Dilip Panikker. The first is on the issue of identity. "Usually, the employees are young college students or fresh graduates of moderate means. So you have family and friends relating to you as ‘Shalini,’ and at work you are treated differently as ‘Susan.’ One is privileged, paid a lot of money, works in a high-tech office and has this intense interaction with colleagues. When you go back home, you don’t quite fit it."

Not all call centre employees work in the ‘nice’ jobs like servicing customers of laptops or other computer goods. If she is in a job dealing with defaults in credit card payments, she gets a lot of flak. Dr Panikker recalls the instance of an employee who had to deal with a credit card defaulter who had run up a bill visiting a porn site and refused to acknowledge it. Dealing with an abusive and argumentative client was one issue, dealing with her own cultural inhibitions was another.

The second issue is the isolation faced by call centre employees. "Given the intense contact between team members on a shift, there is bound to be some development of inter-personal relationships. When the shift changes, there is a sudden break-up of relations.

The third issue is related to the stress levels of employees put to work on night shifts and given high targets - this may force some towards drug abuse of some sort, he fears. Pep-up pills and other drugs to keep them going - especially when youngsters have money to indulge - is a very genuine apprehension.

It is no wonder that at least two call centres have begun looking for counsellors to refer employees with problems. As yet, no call centre actually retains psychologists or counsellors, perhaps wary of even admitting to work-related stresses and problems.

Dr Nagpal is of the opinion that young employees of call centres need structured counselling. He cited the instance of a girl who attempted suicide because of the intense parental pressure she faced due to her odd working hours.

Dr Panikker also fears the social impact within a couple of years when the first crop of young 19- to 20-year-old employees slogs it out and inevitably suffers burnout. "Then, they’ll quit these high-pressure jobs after getting a salary of Rs 15,000 and suddenly, they are back in a job market they have no more qualifications for. They have given up on higher studies for the seemingly lucrative call centre job. They have no other training, no other expertise. Where do they go from here?" — WFS